Rousseau is one of the constitutional influencers featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy.
Rousseau’s central doctrine in politics is that a state can be legitimate only if it is guided by the “general will” of its members. This idea finds its most detailed treatment in The Social Contract.
The Social Contract
Rousseau (1712-1788) outlines the basis for a legitimate political order within a framework of classical republicanism (the idea that a government should be based on the consent of the people and if a government deviates from the will of the governed, the people have a right to form a new government). Published in 1762, it became one of the most influential works of political philosophy in the Western tradition. The treatise begins with the dramatic opening lines, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they.”
Rousseau claimed that the state of nature was a primitive condition without law or morality, which human beings left for the benefits and necessity of cooperation. In the degenerate phase of society, man is prone to be in frequent competition with his fellow men while also becoming increasingly dependent on them. This duality threatens both his survival and his freedom. As society developed, the division of labor and private property required the human race to adopt institutions of law.
According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, by joining together into civil society through the social contract and abandoning their claims of natural rights, individuals can both preserve themselves and remain free. This is because submission to the authority of the general will of the people as a whole guarantees individuals against being subordinated to the wills of others and also ensures that they obey themselves because they are, collectively, the authors of the law.
Although Rousseau argues that sovereignty (or the power to make the laws) should be in the hands of the people, he also makes a sharp distinction between the sovereign and the government. The government is composed of magistrates, charged with implementing and enforcing the “general will” (will of the people as a whole). The “sovereign” is the rule of law, ideally decided on by direct democracy in an assembly.
Effect on American Government
Rousseau, like the founding fathers, believe in the self-evidence that “all men are created equal,” and the conviction that citizens of a republic be educated at public expense. The Constitution’s concept of the “general welfare” is very similar to Rousseau’s concept of the “general will”. Thomas Jefferson derived much of the Declaration of Independence from Rousseau as well as from Locke and Montesquieu.
Previous Constitutional Influencer: Charles Louis-de Secondat, Barron de la Brede et de Montesquieu